Open Source

Problems with Linux security? When clicking your heels does not help, try staying on your toes

The Linux platform has some flaws in its security system, but these are problems that can be anticipated and avoided when the right preventive steps are executed. Find out Gartner Research's suggestions for keeping a Linux-based system secure.

You know that any information passing between users on a network is susceptible to attack and that your company can be brought to its knees, whether the attack comes as a data hacker or a worm. Information security is a standard concern among network administrators, especially at a time when Melissa and ILOVEYOU have brought the precarious nature of network security to the national spotlight.

While most well-publicized attacks have come against more mainstream technologies, Linux users are not exempt from security problems. So, if your enterprise is running a Linux OS, Gartner Research suggests some key steps to safeguard your network.
“Linux is proving to be a stable, secure operating system. However, as in any other UNIX system, Linux is only as secure as the administrator makes it.”
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Common sense and a good admin are still the best defense
The system administrator is the key to Linux system's security. The better the admin performs his or her job, the more secure the system will be. A good system administrator knows that attacks on the network can be avoided by putting in the time to maintain the system correctly.

System administrators should ensure there is a useable security policy in place, perform regular security maintenance procedures, and be able to quickly act upon attacks that do happen.

Here are some additional security tips for the system administrator to follow:
  • Do not give regular users access to the server.
  • Physically secure PCs.
  • Use encryption software.
  • Check the network for changes regularly.
  • Ensure that the server boots from its hard drive.
  • Use a password for the lilo prompt.
  • Prevent regular users from having root access or access to interactive shells.
  • Use firewalls.

Help is available, but support may not be
The Linux community offers a wide array of tools to help ease security fears. Many tools are included in Linux system, while others are free to download from the Web. A number of add-on software utilities can be found on the Web as free, downloadable software.

The downside of Linux in general is the lack of support. While the source code is accessible free on the Web or virtually given away, it is done so with much less technical support than the commercial community is accustomed to.

A+ to grassroots technology
Concerns about the security of the Linux OS abound due to its recent emergence on the market, its open source approach, and the fact that it is not supported by a large vendor (that is, Microsoft). However, these conditions can actually aid in keeping the OS secure.

There is a tight-knit, grassroots movement behind Linux, which boosts the speed at which security problems are found. In fact, the Linux community can be almost evangelic when it comes to lobbying for the product’s superiority over more mainstream operating systems. Last year, when Microsoft published a challenge for hackers to crack a Win2K system, Linux advocates quickly simulated the same test for a freeware server , even going so far as to publish the machine’s root password.

Due in part to the open source approach of the Linux OS, a system administrator (who knows what he or she is looking for) can find bugs directly in the code and send off the offensive string to an unorganized association of volunteers who find, announce, and fix problems for all Linux users. Many bugs in Linux can be cleaned up within 48 hours of discovering the problem. This is in stark contrast to the six months it may take for a larger OS vendor to isolate a problem and release an upgrade.

Along with the fast bug identification, Linux is not as susceptible to the viruses that can destroy other systems. Worms are more common in Linux, but the number of worm occurrences is still not as high as that of other systems.

However, Linux does have problems with buffer overflows. (Overflows are also common in Microsoft systems.) An attacker that creates an overflow can gain unlimited access to a system. Again, staying up-to-date with the latest security announcements is an easy way to avoid overflows.

Additional reading
For more information on Linux, check out the TechRepublic articles listed below:

Linux 101: Basic network security

Learn how to incorporate the basics of Linux security into the system administration team’s daily procedures from TechRepublic’s Jack Wallen, Jr.

Supporting Linux in an uncertain future

Get Gartner’s take on the future of the operating system and its potential in the enterprise.
For in-depth information on emerging IT products and technologies, head to TechRepublic’s Product Analysis Center for Gartner Research’s unbiased take on all the new products you’ve been hearing about at the water cooler.

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